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Hercules Mulligan: Immigrant, Tailor, Haberdasher, Spy

By Tara Mae

Hercules Mulligan, immigrant and Revolutionary War hero, embodies the evolution and development of the ambitious, yet often exclusionary, ideals of America. An immigrant from Ireland, he devoted himself to the promise of the country and embodied its duality. Mulligan’s, like America’s, vision of freedom was imperfect, but expanded to be more inclusive. 

Born in Ireland on September 25, 1740, at the age of six, Mulligan moved with his family to New York City. After graduating from King’s College (now Columbia University), he began working for his father’s accounting firm. Mulligan eventually opened his own tailoring and haberdashery business, that specifically catered to the tastes of wealthy officers of the British Army. He married Elizabeth Sanders in Manhattan’s Trinity Church, which was established by the Church of England; they had eight children.  

His famed association with Alexander Hamilton began when Mulligan’s brother Hugh introduced him to Hamilton shortly after his arrival from St. Croix in 1772. Mulligan was also acquainted with the Crugers, for whom Hamiton had clerked before he came to America. Hugh helped Hamilton sell cargo to pay for his education and expenses. With Mulligan’s assistance, Hamilton entered the Elizabethtown Academy grammar school to prepare for college, then the College of New Jersey at Princeton (now Princeton University), and finally Kings College. While Hamilton was in New Jersey, Mulligan connected him with William Livingston, the eventual governor of New Jersey and a signer of the Constitution. 

Upon Hamilton’s return to New York, Mulligan took him in as a lodger. Mulligan fully convinced Hamilton, who had originally defended British rule of the colonies, that it was unjust. A staunch believer in American independence from English rule, in 1765 Mulligan became one of the first members of the Sons of Liberty, a secret society founded by Samual Adams to fight taxation by the British and promote colonial independence. 

An early agitator against the British occupation, in 1770 Mulligan joined other Sons of Liberty in mobbing British soldiers at the Battle of Golden Hill in New York City. This event is considered to be a preliminary conflict that led to the American Revolution. As a precursor to his career in espionage, Mulligan was a member of the New York Committee of Correspondence. It garnered support for freedom from British rule through letter writing campaigns and targeted communications. 

Even after opening his tailoring and haberdashery shop in 1774, Mulligan continued his acts of rebellion. In 1775, he was with the Corsicans, a New York volunteer militia, as it captured four cannons from the Battery while under fire from the HMS Asia. The next year, the Sons of Liberty, with him in attendance, knocked over a statue of King George III in Bowling Green. They melted down the lead into bullets to be used against British forces. 

During this period, Washington saw the need for reliable data about the occupying British forces in New York City. Hamilton, who in 1775, wrote a powerful essay that advocated the need for American independence, was then an officer on Washington’s staff. He recommended Mulligan for the role. Mulligan was in a unique position to casually, yet surreptitiously gather information about the British Army. Mulligan had both personal and professional ties to England and its military. His wife was the niece of a prominent and decorated former officer in the British Royal Navy. His shop was very popular among its officers; he courted this relationship and exploited it for the benefit of the patriotic cause. 

Following the Continental Army’s defeat at the Battle of Long Island, Mulligan had tried to leave New York. He was thwarted by a party of Tory militiamen who captured him and forcibly returned him to the state. When Washington requested his assistance, Mulligan was eager to offer his services. Mulligan connected with Robert Townsend of the Culper Spy Ring, and operated both in conjunction with the espionage network and independent of it, establishing a chain of communication that went directly to Washington. 

Mulligan employed many tailors but cultivated a personal rapport with his customers himself, greeting them, taking their measurements, etc. This enabled him to engage the British officers in personal, and revealing, conversations. He played to their vanities, coaxing them into disclosing practical and anecdotal information. Mulligan frequently plied them with whiskey to keep the talk flowing. If many officers gave the same date for needing their uniforms repaired and returned, Mulligan deduced the next tactical move of the British. They took him into their confidence, and thought him an ally, tarnishing his standing with his neighbors opposed to British occupation. In order to help the Patriots, Mulligan sacrificed his reputation among them. 

He apparently shared the same cognitive dissonance as many of the founding fathers: while he fought so fervently for independence from the colonies, he may have “owned” an enslaved person. Sometimes described as a servant, frequently identified as an enslaved person, Cato, a Black man, is consistently recognized as a Black Patriot, and according to Mulligan, worked as a “willing accomplice.” Once Mulligan got his intel from the officers, he would send Cato as a courier to Washington’s headquarters in New Jersey. Cato knew Hamilton, and therefore had a direct line to Washington. With a few notable exceptions, he was allowed to go into New Jersey without interference. In general, a Black man was not suspected by the British of being a messenger to Washington. And, many British soldiers he encountered along the journey visited Mulligan’s shop and were acquainted with him.

These activities put Mulligan and Cato at risk. Mulligan, who charmed his way out of jail, was arrested twice (Benedict Arnold named him a spy); Cato was beaten at least once. They were not dissuaded from their activities. Each was indispensable to the success of the war effort. Mulligan is credited, with Cato’s aid, for twice saving Washington’s life. The first occasion was in 1779. Mulligan learned, from the enthusiastic oversharing of an eager officer, that "before another day, we'll have the rebel general in our hands." Mulligan rushed the officer out of the store, and quickly sent Cato to warn Washington, who changed his plans and avoided an ambush. 

The second time, Mulligan’s source was Hugh. Through his work with the British commissariat in New York City, he kept Mulligan informed about British comings and goings. In this case, Hugh was commissioned by British General Sir Henry Clinton to stock boats with enough provision for 300 troops. They intended to intercept Washington en route to Rhode Island via the Connecticut shoreline. Cato promptly set off to alert Washington to the planned attack; Washington recalibrated his course and arrived safely in New England. 

Mulligan was so effective at hiding his true allegiance that by the end of the war he and Cato were in danger of being labeled traitors to American independence. Since Tories were being tarred and feathered, it was a valid concern. In a show of camaraderie, Washington visited Mulligan’s house, ate breakfast with him, and shopped in his store. As president, Washington continued to do business with Mulligan, updating his wardrobe with garments from the tailor. 

Few details exist about Cato’s life; much of the information is through the lens of his association with Mulligan and his efforts during the Revolution. There are no details about his life after the war ended. Mulligan seems a white man of his time, unable or unwilling to fully extend the freedoms for which he risked his life to Blacks (or women.) Contemporaries, such as Hamilton, were frequently abolitionists more in theory than in practice; if emancipation interfered with his personal or practical goals, they set it aside or compromised. 

In 1785 Mulligan was one of 19 founders, all white men, of the New York Manumission Society, which advocated for the discontinuation of the slave trade, gradual abolition of slavery, manumission of enslaved people, as well as protection and expansion of the rights of free Blacks. It was one of the first such organizations in the newly formed nation, and set a precedent for later, more encompassing abolitionist policies and actions. Several members were Quakers.

The majority of the participants were wealthy and of good social standing: many were also slaveholders. Whether they saw themselves as saviors or guardians, they used their influence to gather practical and financial interest in these pursuits, and provided financial and legal aid to Black persons in New York. The Society founded the African Free School for poor and orphaned children of enslaved and free Black people. This was the first free public school in the United States.  

As Mulligan’s status as a quiet, but vital, figure in the American Revolution became better known and he explored social justice causes with other former revolutionaries, his business continued to thrive. He retired in 1820, at the age of 80, and died in 1825. He is buried near Hamilton in Trinity Church Cemetery. An imperfect patriot, Mulligan, strove to defeat different types of tyranny, even as he may have participated in the institution of slavery.

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